Does “Struggle” have a story behind it?
Yes, and it’s kind of complicated.
First, it’s a piece that was meant to display my full range of composing abilities. I took a lot of time to make sure this was a work I’m proud of, and as well-composed as I could possibly make it.
Then the concept behind it is about our daily struggles, the things that just keep coming and coming. But it was difficult to decide how that was going to sound, and why.
Can you walk us through the song’s structure?
The structure is pretty simple. The beginning sets the scene for the tale, starting out with a different kind of melody that sounds as if it was already playing before you pressed the “play” button. That’s showing that life is always going on, that the struggle will keep coming.
I use that melody throughout the score to give a sense of familiarity, and that lets me branch out and create completely different sections to represent different situations.
The first movement is the pilot episode, I use it to let you know what to expect as you embark on this 10-minute-long journey. With the emotionally charged violins, violas, and so on, I’m already painting the picture of a person who’s caught up in something difficult (I don’t want to give too much of my own interpretation, so everyone can have their own takes on the story).
That first section can be considered a microcosm of the full score. It builds up from a piano solo to an overwhelming, blaring climax - I think it’s the loudest section of the score, although maybe the 5th movement beats it by a little bit. It’s a section focused on anger, a vicious cycle. The chord progression (Bbmaj-Cmaj-Dmin-Amaj) gives a sense of never-endingness, thanks to the structure of the progression that prepares you for the D minor, but instead of finishing the repeating pattern there, it goes to the A major.
According to music theory, A major is the D minor’s dominant chord, which is resolved by the tonic, aka the D minor chord. You can also create an unexpected resolution by swapping the D minor with a B flat major, which is a perfect replacement in this case, as it doesn’t give the closure D minor would. Instead it leaves you expecting more, creating the image of a person constantly fighting to get out of a predicament.
I finish this movement with the dominant chord again, because I didn’t want to give any closure yet. Bringing the first set of melodies to a close would take away the excitement from the listener, in my opinion; I prefer to leave you wondering about what comes next.
The second movement was inspired by the second section of another composition of mine called “Can This Last Forever?” It changes the essence of the score, putting you in a state of “fight or flight”. With the upward glisses I wanted to depict someone fighting obstacles or having close calls. The repeating Ds are meant to represent the emotions the protagonist is feeling, which is anxiety mixed with anger.
This is another situation that isn’t meant to end quickly, so I let it continue to play in the background, allowing the strings and horns to come in and harmonize. I kept this section short, as it flows nicely into the third movement.
That third is where I’m taking all the rough feelings from the previous one and developing them. From here on, the foundation of the score becomes anger, an ominous vibe. With the HV guitar I’m acclimating everyone to an atmosphere contaminated by anger and frustration.
It’s a part where I must’ve been possessed by some crazy spirit when composing, because I cannot remember anything about how I did it. It just flowed out of me and into the score. I do remember being stoked when the Flat team released new choir samples, I was super excited to incorporate them here.
I also had a lot of fun changing the scenery to a cinematic battlefield. The melody previously played by the horns is ripped away from their grip by the choirs, I cannot believe how epic it sounds. The new samples included vibrato on the voices of the choir, which I knew I’d have a lot of fun working with. Using them on high volume is a mistake, as they overshadow any other instrument, but as background noise? Oh man. I won’t even bother to explain how good it is, just listen to movement three, absolutely badonkas!
I top off this continuous buildup with a mock climax, basically a fake closure, which is executed by a short string section. It’s probably my second favorite part of the score, the melody and harmonies are probably the best combination I’ve ever done.
I struggled a lot (pun intended) to choose the right note for the chords of each instrument. It was high-risk, since if I put in too many harmonies to accompany the melody it would’ve sounded messy and overwhelming. I tried to use my knowledge of music theory here, and hoped for the best.
With movement four, I had a complicated section to succeed the previous movement. I had to take all the emotions introduced in the score so far and bring them together for a strong climax. It was difficult, but I managed to do a great job, if I do say so myself!
I had some more fun with the choirs here, they really are my favorite toys to play with. And I forgot to mention my addiction to gongs! They’re one of the best instruments to use when you’re going for a dramatic vibe. The sound is smooth, and combined with some reverb it can give the feeling of the “riser” plugin found in DAWs (ed. note: digital audio workstations).
Here I didn’t try to trick you into thinking it’ll be another fake climax. Instead, I’m giving exactly what you want, an ever-climaxing climax. Starting off the movement with the gliss-heavy melody, the protagonist is forced to finally face the music and deal with their problems. Do they overcome them? Do they fail? The climax doesn’t give a definite answer, it just plants more questions in your head.
With the end of movement four, the end is finally near. I again reuse the introductory piano solo to remind you of what you’ve experienced so far, although it’s slowed down, and I’m giving the satisfactory release that wasn’t there throughout the rest of this wild journey. The torment is finally over, with a short recap of the full score.
I start movement five letting you believe that the piano is the only instrument I’ll use to wrap up the story… but hell no! I had to bring my addiction to “Happier Than Ever” into the mix. Just as you think it’s about to finish, the drums come in and you’re off on one last journey. But this time it won’t be an ever-climaxing type of ending like in the previous movement, this time it’s the real deal.
Coming in with a very quick rise, it goes from sobby and sad to angry and explosive, just like “Happier Than Ever” goes from wondering about how Billie’s ex is taking their breakup to yelling at him for being terrible to her in the second section. After this short climax I finally let your minds find some peace by slowly fading out to a piano solo. Right after the strings come screaming in once again, the suspended cymbal creates a smooth transition to a fadeout. I then tried to recreate the “echo effect” used in pop songs here, with the choirs gradually becoming quieter and quieter, I’m proud of how it turned out. And just like that, they leave the picture, allowing the piano to play its final part and signal “the end”.
Wow, that’s a very thoughtful description of this piece, thank you for that. Were there any big challenges that came specifically from composing for an orchestra?
I think the biggest challenge is finding the right instruments for every occasion. I’m extremely picky with the kind of sound I want each section to have, so I go the extra mile searching for the perfect instruments. It’s also very tricky to balance out the volume of each instrument and to figure out the role each one has.
Overall, it’s something I’m still learning as I don’t have much experience with orchestral works, other than the ones I’ve composed on Flat. I’ve spent a decent amount of time on YouTube, listening to a wide range of classical works over the years, and that’s definitely helped as well.
What are the key lessons you’ll take away from this process?
I learned so much by working on this score alone, I was able to see more clearly what I’m really capable of.
But I still struggled (pun!) to put the whole thing together, and so I eventually brought in two great people to help me, RedProductions and Rory Cannon. If it weren’t for them, I don’t think this would have been any better than my average score or my previous specials. They understood the task, and delivered way more than I could’ve ever expected.
That taught me something very important: I’d always thought that I shouldn’t get help from others, that I’m the only one who can navigate the melodies and figure out how to achieve the right feeling every time. But I was wrong about that, and I’m happy that I went against that belief and allowed others to help me, it’s easily the best musical decision I’ve ever made. More people can absolutely be better than one.
I also learned to work on huge scores, which was new to me. I’d always relied on short orchestras that were piano-focused, but this time I gave every instrument an important role.
After learning from this experience of composing for an orchestra, is there anything you’d do differently in the composition process?
I would’ve loved to know that I shouldn’t stress over finishing the score ASAP, that I could give myself time to go back and work on it again. I used to have a bad composing mindset, rushing to finish scores so I could publish them quickly. “The Struggle” was the first score where I promised myself that I wouldn’t even think about publishing until I’d done everything I possibly could to it.
That meant 4 months of non-stop work on the first half, and more sporadic dedication in the second half, but I ended up with a 10-minute score that is cohesive, well-organized, and not rushed. Each special I put out is meant to show what I’ve learned since the previous one, so hopefully I can come back with something even better when it’s time for the 300 followers special!
What did you learn by stepping out of your musical comfort zone?
I saw that the piano might be my comfort instrument, but it’s not the only instrument that I have fun composing for. I learned how to add more colors to my palette, composing for a huge variety of instruments. My works might not always be playable in real life, but they’re fun to compose! I’m planning to keep composing with more instruments in the future, and maybe I’ll even make works that don’t include a piano at all!
What tips would you give someone wanting to start composing for an orchestra?
Despite what I just said, don’t rush to add more instruments. Work with what you have until it sounds good to you. To make something big, select the instruments you think you’ll need but then start creating a melody on one instrument to lay the foundation. Once you’re done, you can begin to give roles to the other instruments.
Then work in sections, as it makes your job easier to split your work into movements, working on each one individually and making it as great as possible. You can delete the markings later and have a singular movement. (This applies to other works too, not just orchestras – split your work into sections and concentrate on them individually!)
What aspects of music theory do you consider fundamental when composing for an orchestra?
I don’t know if they’re fundamental, but these are the things I use from music theory to help me compose more easily:
- Fluid chord progressions: I don’t want to get stuck creating stuff that always follows a simple chord progression. Music theory teaches you every possible way of combining chords together to create different progressions that sound good and are interesting.
- Resolving notes: Many chords from each scale have some note(s) that need specific resolutions. For example, in C major the third note of the fifth chord (G major) is the subtonic, the note B that must be resolved with a C after it. But on rare occasions, the B note can be resolved differently, which is fascinating to me! Lots of notes have similar requirements, and having music theory in your arsenal can get rid of a lot of confusion.
- Various ways to embellish your works: Learning music theory can be boring, but the things you learn will help a lot when composing. Knowing how to use glissandos, apoggiaturas, acciacciaturas, ways of constructing harmonies to accompany your melody, and so on, will give you more ways to decorate your melody.
So if you’ve been dreading the idea of learning music theory, muster up the strength and do it! It’s very worth the pain if you really like to compose.
Do you have an idea for your next project?
I’ve been feeling an urge to make another orchestral piece with a much more classical feeling, a romantic one. I’m planning to start my 300 follower special soon, and I want to make it even better than this one. It’ll be tough, but it’s fun to go bigger and bigger with each special, and I improve a lot in the process!